20 Excerpts: “Sorting Fact From Fiction – Tiananmen Revisited”

I just read a very well-written essay on Fool’s Mountain by Mark Anthony Jones titled, Sorting fact from fiction – Tiananmen revisited (part 1). As the title suggests, this is just the first part of an essay discussing the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”, with part 2 scheduled to be released later on May 22nd.


Drawing from a ton of cited sources, the piece actually echoes much of what I personally learned back in my days at The People’s Republic of Berkeley. However, for the vast majority of people, it offers a wealth of information, perspective, and insights on what actually happened in Beijing almost 20 years ago that they may be completely ignorant of. You see, when it comes to Tiananmen, most people see it in very black and white, clear-cut terms:

  1. Chinese student protesters = pro-democracy = victims and martyrs.
  2. Chinese government = evil communism = murderers and oppressors.

In reality, Tiananmen was not nearly so simple and, unfortunately, Tiananmen is regularly invoked in oversimplified — even distorted — terms for any number of political ends and arguments. Mark Anthony Jones’ essay aims to shed more light on Tiananmen, in hopes of dispelling a lot of commonly and even closely-held misconceptions, misunderstandings, and myths surrounding how it happened and what it meant. As such, I highly recommend those with a genuine interest in learning more about the topic to go take the time to read it.

But…the essay is quite long, so it may be a bit intimidating for pretty much anyone who isn’t a historian or academic. In fact, it’s probably too long for the vast majority of internet users to sit through, seeing as how we suffer so from Attention Deficit Disorder. Therefore, I’ve shrunk it down 80%* into the following review, featuring 20 excerpts of the interesting information presented that may prove to be illuminating for many:

In 2004, the former Australian diplomat, Gregory Clark, in an article published in The Japan Times, claimed that no massacre ever took place in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, or anywhere else in Beijing. ‘There was no deliberate massacre of innocent students,’ he wrote, and ‘no massacre in the Square.’ Instead, what occurred was a ‘mini civil war,’ with ‘panicky fighting’ having been ‘triggered by crowds attacking troops, initially unarmed, as they headed for the Square on June 3.’

Many Western politicians, reporters and editors, have indeed continued to accept a version of events that portrays the students as having been the advocates of a Western-style political system, murdered in their thousands while peacefully assembled in the confines of Tiananmen Square.

…with the death of the democratically inclined Hu Yaobang on April 15, some of the more ‘politically astute’ students saw an opportunity: ‘they knew that the death of a high Party leader was a time when authorities would briefly tolerate a degree of political dissent.’

The students may have initiated the Tiananmen movement, but by mid-May they had become dwarfed by the intervention of much broader social forces.

The student protesters were at the time widely portrayed by Western journalists as ‘pro-democracy’ campaigners, as if they had been calling on the central government to introduce a political system based on multi-party elections. Most, however, simply equated the idea of ‘democracy’ with the need for government accountability and responsiveness.

Chinoy then goes on to explain how at the time, he quickly came to realise that ‘the protesters were not talking about an American-style political system for China’ when they spoke of democracy. ‘I wasn’t completely comfortable,’ he admits, ‘with the way I and other reporters, faced with the limitation of daily journalism and its pressure to compress and simplify, tended to describe their protests as a “democracy movement,” for ‘the more I listened, the more I became convinced that the students’ top priority was not establishing a democracy, but simply securing formal recognition from the government for their movement.’

Another journalist who covered events at the time, Jane Macartney, also questioned the students’ motives. Democracy was merely a ‘buzzword’ she realised, for ‘accountability is what they meant.’ When asked about their ideas, says Macartney, ‘most were hard pressed for an answer. “Freedom, democracy,” the students said during demonstrations. Pressed to elaborate, they complained of official corruption and high-level nepotism, poor food and uncomfortable dormitories. Were they talking about universal equality of opportunity or were they merely envious of those who held higher-paying jobs?’

‘The demonstrations cannot be considered purely anti-government, as many protesters think of themselves as a kind of loyal opposition,’ wrote David Holley for The Los Angeles Times, April 23. The student movement, he later added, was ‘aimed at accelerating the process of economic and political reform within the Communist Party and under the Communist Party’s leadership of the Chinese system.’

Many of those who turned out to support the movement no doubt did so simply because that was what everyone else seemed to be doing.

…all eight American-based media organisations sampled tended to define the student movement as a ‘pro-democracy’ one, even though ‘the majority’ of banners, T-shirts and symbols used by the student protesters were in Chinese, not English – their demands ‘reflect[ing] Chinese cultural norms, rather than Western ideas.’

…American journalists, the report concluded, because of their excessive ethnocentrism, generally failed at the time to understand the unique features and limitations of the student movement: ‘Americans tend to see their own democratic values mirrored elsewhere in the world.’ Such an outlook, while facilitating interest and sympathy, also ‘plants seeds of misunderstanding.’

The student movement was also elitist in the way that it ‘largely ignored the workers,’ …quite keen to prevent the workers from appropriating their movement, and sought from the very beginning to marginalise all non-students.

…‘they observed in the student leaders and in their movement many of the faults of the nation’s leaders and their political system: hierarchy, secrecy, condescension toward ordinary people, factionalism and struggles for power, and even special privilege and corruption.’

…the student movement, rather than having operated democratically, simply reproduced elite hierarchies similar to those that structured the Chinese Communist Party.

…‘the bickering students began to display the same bureaucratic and autocratic tendencies in their “People’s Republic of Tiananmen Square” that they were trying to change in the government.’

The outside world thought the demonstrators were disciplined, and marveled. But having lived through the Cultural Revolution myself, talents like slogan shouting and mass marching didn’t impress me…it seemed that the students were merely aping their oppressors. They established a Lilliputian kingdom in Tiananmen Square, complete with a min-bureaucracy with committees for sanitation, finance and ‘propaganda’. They even adopted grandiose titles. Chai Ling was elected Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Tiananmen Square Unified Action Headquarters.

Like the government, the students’ broadcast station sometimes deliberately disseminated misinformation, such as the resignation of key government officials, which wasn’t true. They even, indignity of all indignities, issued us press passes. Using transparent fishing line held in place by volunteers who simply stood there all day, they carved the huge square into gigantic concentric circles of ascending importance. Depending on how our press passes were stamped determined how deeply we could penetrate those silly circles.

The reason why the students were able to enjoy little negative press, with most foreign journalists choosing to turn a blind eye to their elite authoritarianism, is because producers were concerned that anything negative reported might ‘play into the hands’ of the Chinese central government…Most foreign journalists were keen to promote the idea that liberal democracy has universal appeal, which meant not only putting a democratic stamp on the student movement, but also the constant portraying of students in a positive light.

Specifically, journalists underreported ‘actions that were distinctly undemocratic, hypocritical or elitist. Conflicts among the protesters were downplayed, as well as the reluctance of some student leaders to welcome workers into their movement. There were inadequate attempts to report the source of funds the movement received, and whether they were properly used and accounted for.’

…Chai Ling, in a now famous interview with Cunningham himself, explained that what the movement was ‘actually hoping for is bloodshed’, for ‘only when the Square is washed in our blood will the people of China open their eyes.’

It ‘is true that student forces did reproduce many features of the CCP regime during their occupation of Tiananmen Square,’ he adds, ‘and this is a reminder of the staying power of hegemonic forms…The fierce factional infighting in Tiananmen Square, during which protesters resurrected old Cultural Revolution labels such as “renegade” and “traitor” to attack their enemies,’ simply exemplifies just how persistent ‘entrenched political habits’ can be.

* If you’re curious, the original essay featured 5372 words and 29,211 characters. The above excerpts total 1121 words, and 6416 characters.

Given what I know of Fool’s Mountain, the ensuing discussion in their comments (none yet) for these pieces will likely be quite intelligently contentious. If you have a firm grasp of rhetoric, I encourage you to go check out the comments and see if there’s a debate you want to contribute to. Either way, I hope reading this piece will help more people reflect upon what they think they know about the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”, prompt some questions, and lead everyone towards developing a more mature understanding of something that was anything but simple and clear-cut.

I will update this with interesting excerpts from Part 2 when it is published.

May 10, 2009 UPDATE:

Richard of The Peking Duck blog fame brought up in the comments below a worthwhile caution concerning the author of the essay referenced above. Having checked the damning evidence provided, it appears that Mark Anthony Jones has been caught consistently plagiarizing others in his past comments on The Peking Duck blog. So far, no one has suggested that the essay above attributed to him was plagiarized, but this revelation certainly sheds an interesting twist on the credibility of the writer himself.

That said, it is worth remembering that while the writer could be an untrustworthy person, it does not automatically render what the writer has written as false, untrue, or incorrect. Given that the writer has offered plenty of cited sources that can be referenced and checked against, it is hereby advised that readers do their own due diligence when evaluating  the merits of the points and information presented in the essay. As stated by myself below, the points presented echo my own research and knowledge of the issue. It is unfortunate nonetheless that such a piece is tainted and potentially undermined by the writer’s own negative but self-wrought reputation.

June 4, 2009 UPDATE:

James Kynge from the Financial Times writes another piece tackling the contentious issue of the Western media’s narrative of Tiananmen Square that has already ruffled the feathers of quite a few in the comments below. Here is a brief excerpt:

When I think about the massacre in central Beijing that followed weeks of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which I covered as part of a team of Reuters reporters, I cannot help feeling troubled.

Of course it was a brutal and harrowing time, but that isn’t the reason for my disquiet. I’m concerned because I don’t think we – the western media – got the narrative of those days quite right.

People say journalism is merely a first, rough draft of history. But the problem here is that this draft appears to have been canonised, passing largely unedited into popular conscience.

The truth is that the students in the square had only the haziest understanding of western-style democracy. To the extent that the protests were directed at abuses of an existing system by an emerging elite, they were motivated more by outrage at the betrayal of socialist ideals than by aspirations for a new system. The mood in the square was at least as much conservative as it was activist.

Such arguments may seem arcane two decades later. But, in my view, they are keenly relevant. The styling of Tiananmen as a pro-democracy movement helped to miscast the west’s narrative on China’s past and future.

Several people below have criticized me (and others) for caring about this issue, going so far as to suggest that discussing the accuracy of the Western media’s reporting of Tiananmen either detracts from a greater moral imperative to keep the condemnation and pressure on the Chinese central government that has tried to erase what happened from history or lends support to Chinese government revisionists and apologists, or both. I disagree with such people. To me, being able to examine information that doesn’t fit our existing conceptions and reconciling our existing conceptions to the information we critically examine is incredibly important to not just understanding what Tiananmen, but respecting it. Projecting our own values and ideology upon the demonstrators is equivalent to subverting their dignity and commandeering their movement.

Spread the word:
  • Digg
  • Mixx
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Haohao
  • del.icio.us
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Netvibes
  • Print
  • email
  • RSS
  • Twitter